Rethinking the American Dream: The Failure of “The Pursuit of Happiness”

By | November 1, 2011

I don’t know about you, but the impression I have is that the “American Dream” is mainly about building your own personal fortune. (This doesn’t mean you’ll consider yourself rich, it just means that you are working on increasing your personal wealth.) I believe in this country this is what people think the pursuit of happiness is about. However, gaining wealth may actually decrease your happiness.

Having enough income to provide for one’s needs and create some amount of financial stability and security has a significant affect on one’s happiness. However, once the basics are taken care of, increased income quickly fails to bring increased happiness.1,2

Overall, there is ample evidence to clearly show that one factor is the most significant in determining our happiness, and it isn’t money. “The emerging science of happiness has found that the single biggest determinant of our happiness is the quantity and the quality of our relationships.” (emphasis added). “Academics are already in broad agreement that there is a strong correlation between the quality of people’s relationships and their happiness.” There are many more studies which support this conclusion.3,4,5 So if you want to be happier, focus on other people. (The factors determining happiness can pretty well be described by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In a way it’s a different way of reaching the same conclusion.)

As a Christian, I believe that relationships are so important to us because they are the way in which we are created in God’s image. This is one of the reasons I stress the church—Christian community—so much, over simply personal spirituality. This is also one of the motivators behind writing my last post. The point being that many of the things which we think are supposed to make us happy, could actually be dividing us and making us less happy.

Some will rightly point out that we’re not always going to be happy, and that happiness shouldn’t be the goal or bottom line. What we’re talking about here isn’t just happiness in the narrowest sense, but a sense of well-being and contentment. Even so, these aren’t the bottom line. Ironically, what would probably be considered the direct pursuit of happiness, hedonism, is actually unlikely to bring it. This is a case where you aren’t likely to hit the target by aiming directly at it. What is best isn’t always what makes us happiest at the moment. But I believe that Christ came to heal us and restore us. We may not experience this fully now, though we will eventually. I don’t believe it’s any mistake that what Christ commands us to do most, love God and love each other, are the things which will make us happiest. So ironically, if we make our goal doing what’s best for others, we are most likely to end up making ourselves happy. Perhaps we’re all more interdependent and interconnected than what we’ve realized.


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